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Hobbes, Thomas

Page history last edited by Elspeth Runyan 15 years, 2 months ago

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) believes that prior to government and civil society there exists a state of nature. He also bases his argument on theories of possessive individualism. According to Hobbes, individuals in the state of nature are in constant pursuit of power and profit. This theory originates from the latin phrase, Omnes Bellum Contra Omnes, or "the war of all is against all" and was probably heavily influenced by England's concurrent tummultuous political state and all of the events that led up to the English Civil War, which took place from 1648-1651 and was a struggle over  monarchy vs.republicanism.  Individualism is rooted in ownership: the ownership of one's self and everything produced from one's self. We have the natural right to everything we have produced, and also the right to alienate, or sell for profit. Predictably, a fundamental question of sociological theory necessarily enters the discussion after Hobbes' conclusion about humans in a state of nature. How is social order a possibility in a climate where human beings are solely guided by motives of self-interest? Since, even in a state of nature, human beings are born pitted against one another, how does the world avoid constant war and struggle. Hobbes' answer to this question is the "exchange market." Humans as rational beings (rationality defined as the ability to calculate one's own self interest) eventually saw the need for markets to be formed in order to make exchanges with others. Hobbes believes that the most appropriate way for human beings to communicate and interact in a society driven by individual motive, is almost exclusively through a functional market system.

     Society was then formed as a set of relationships of exchange between proprietors. However, if individuals are in constant motion, seeking further power and profit, a sovereign

(state) is needed in order to prevent continual war. Hobbes believes that constant war and perpetual fear is the natural state of human society, and therefore rational humans would universally agree to cede some power to the sovereign to keep peace and protect their property. As rational beings, we wish to survive and so consent to concede part of our power to the sovereign, who will regulate the abuses/excess of power surrounding the markets (the sovereign cannot enter control over markets or otherwise meddle in the activity of the market itself). The market involves a constant exchange of elements of power (status, goods, services, etc), so there will always be a state of imbalance and inequality.

     Hobbes believed that in both the state of nature and in society each individual is its own entity and is disassociated from everyone else because they are motivated by their personal appetites and aversions. Each does not add to a social whole because there is no social whole. Because of this, there is no dependency between individuals; each depends on their own freedom to alienate their labor in order to survive. Everyone is an owner of his or her own actions and labor, which is theirs to alienate. Differences in status are based on individual relations--status is achieved by exchange and ownership, it is not ascribed. In this way, Hobbes argues we are only equal in the desire for goods, life, power, etc. That is, we are all equally insecure and subordinates of the market and wants within it. 

     Hobbes is one of the first materialist theorists of the Enlightenment movement. He was greatly influenced by Tuscan renaissance man Galileo Galilei, who theorized about the nature of matter and motion. As a materialist, Hobbes focused his social theory on that which could be supported by natural phenomena and law. For example, he theorized that people are matter in motion and energy. Individuals' actions are motivated by personal appetites, or their desires for power, wealth, etc., and their aversions, such as fear of death or loss. In that way, individuals are not necessarily in control of their motivations. He felt that in establishing the reality of the imperical, society and the individuals within it can effectively derive a suitable morality. The materialist approach has been critiqued by other theorists on the basis of the fact that there is no evidence pointing to the inherent truth of any notion that social understanding can be deduced from natural law. For example, Emanuel Kant produced a model that implicitly challenges Hobbes' notion that there is an accessible imperical reality when he discusses a priori filters, and the noumena/phenomena theory.

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